What we have to fear

Lately I’ve had a troubling sense that there is a cancer growing in IT departments these days.

No, I’m not talking about constrained budgets, poor alignment, hiring freezes or project failures. I’m not even talking about the growth of outsourcing and offshoring. While these issues are all real, there seems to be something even more toxic eating away at our industry.

What could possibly be more threatening to IT staffs than offshoring? Fear of offshoring.

This faceless, nameless dark terror seems to be gnawing away at the morale of IT professionals everywhere. They are filled with dread that they are witnessing a major sea change in their fortunes. It seems like the bursting of the tech bubble was more acceptable and less threatening than the prospect of offshoring. Those jobs just went away. They didn’t go to some highly skilled engineers half a world away who were willing to work for less pay.

I wish I could quote Franklin Roosevelt and suggest that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But I can’t. I’m not going to join the ITAA and the parade of economists telling us that offshoring is good for us (perhaps collectively and only in the long run) and that we should welcome it with open arms. I’m not so sure about that. Although management consultants like me are often heard chanting the “embrace change” mantra, I’m not sure that I want to snuggle up to this one.

But frankly, whether I like offshoring doesn’t really matter. It’s here, and it’s not going away. Although the legal remedies being batted around Washington and various state capitals may slow the trend, no one can stop the relentless march of work across borders. We created IT to enhance the efficiency and mobility of labour, and it seems to be working.

But the natural and reasonable fear brought on by this sort of metamorphosis seems a more immediate threat to our organizations than the change itself. Even though some estimates suggest that as many as six to 20 per cent of IT jobs may eventually be moved, a relatively small percentage is directly affected by offshoring today. The fear of being on the losing end of this transformation is much more pervasive and immediately debilitating than the longer-term threat.

As a manager of a technical group, there are things that you can do to help alleviate the distractions and tensions that result from industry trends like this that are largely beyond the control of any of us.

Address the issue openly. Once a concern has entered the consciousness of a group, ignoring it won’t make it go away. The fear of the unspoken is much more intense than the fear of an issue openly discussed. If you’re going to experiment with offshoring, explain the purpose of the experiment. If you are going to do a major project, explain the boundaries around the project. Otherwise, the rumour mill becomes an echo chamber, and the scenarios played out there are probably much more imaginative and damaging than anything that might actually happen.

Plan for the future. A group without a clear understanding of its future imagines that it has none. Even if you’re not sure what the future will bring, plan for what you can foresee. If you can’t foresee much, develop a scenario and go with that. All plans are provisional and can be changed, but the disquiet of indecision can last a very long time.

Work for the future. A while back, I was asked to take over a group of IT professionals who had suffered a major leadership defection. I was constantly being asked, “Are we going to shut down this office?” I didn’t really know, but I was sure that if people kept quitting at the current pace, it was much more likely. So we all went to work recruiting new staffers to replace those who had left. Once they were involved in this optimistic work, the questions and resignations stopped.

When it comes to offshoring, there may be nothing we can do to slow its progress. But if we let our fear of it diminish our productivity, the trend will only accelerate. So while it may not be the only thing, one of the biggest things that we have to fear is fear itself.

Paul Glen is an IT management consultant in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 2003; www.leadinggeeks.com). He can be reached at [email protected].

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